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Out there

Side dishes to the Messiers

Mark Wagner


“I consider Virgo to be ‘the main course’ — part of a night-long relaxed celestial gourmet meal.”


NGC206 in Andromeda. Arrow points to the cluster in M31. Sketch by Andreas Domenico, Germany.

NGC2438 in Puppis. Sketch by Andreas Domenico, Germany.

NG3628 in Leo. Part of the "Leo trio" of galaxies. Sketch by Andreas Domenico, Germany.


At the end of March or beginning of April, depending on when new moon falls, a favorite pastime of many amateur astronomers is to attempt a marathon observing session, an all night effort to observe all objects in Charles Messier's famous catalogue.

A Messier marathon starts out hectic, trying to get objects that set in the early evening. This is followed by a nice leisurely paced journey until you get to Virgo, the celestial equivalent of the Bay to Breaker's Hayes Street hill. Things then settle back down until dawn approaches, and you race to get the last few objects.

I consider Virgo to be "the main course" — part of a night-long relaxed celestial gourmet meal. Why not enjoy a few "side-dishes?" These are interesting objects within a degree of the night's entrée.

Begin with M31 and hunt down the gentle glow of a cluster of young blue supergiant stars in the galaxy's disk. NGC206 is just 40' south-southwest of the bright core of M31. You'll recognize the cluster as a dim haze. If it is a particularly transparent night you can also see the dark lanes of M31's arms snaking through the area.

We never tire of M42 — it is so detailed and bright! The entire region glows in nebulosity, and sometimes we overlook the more subtle nearby neighbors. From M42 go to M43 — and keep going. A mere 20' north are some bright stars, with wispy nebulosity and dark lanes running around and between them. This is NGC1977, the "Running Man" nebula. It is subtle, but under dark skies presents a beautiful sight. Move just 26' further north and enjoy the open cluster NGC1981. What a rich area!

The big open cluster M35 in Gemini is adjacent to another open cluster NGC2158 — just 23' to its southwest. It appears to be dimmer and smaller, but is resolvable. NGC2158 is a much denser open cluster, and ten times older and four times more distant than M35. Just 30' south of M38 is the open cluster NGC1907. The combination of M38 and this NGC cluster is bound to remind you of the prior combo of M35 and NGC2158. But, you will find the NGC brighter and easier to resolve next to M38.

Next stop is at the two Messier open clusters in Puppis: M46 and M47. I can often see M47 without optical aid, even from in town. M46 holds an unusual treat, NGC 2438 — a bright planetary nebula. The planetary is annular and responds well to high contrast filters. Pump up the magnification and see what sort of detail you can pull out of this little side-dish.

Two famous spiral galaxies in Leo are M65 and M66. They make up two-thirds of what is called "The Leo Triplet." The third component is NGC3628, a very interesting but dimmer galaxy about half a degree north of the brighter pair. Called "The Hamburger" by some, NGC3628 is edge-on and has an obvious dust lane that is the meat between the two buns. Photographs show that this galaxy is obviously tidally disturbed — the ends of the dust lanes protrude away from the major axis of the galaxy and in opposite directions. This "unevenness" should be visible too in moderate size telescopes.

Globular clusters comprise nearly a third of the Messier catalogue. M53 in Coma Berenices is large and moderately bright. But not even one degree to its east-southeast is NGC5053, a large, dim and sparse globular cluster. M53 and NGC5053 are nearly the same angular size. What a surprise it is to see such a difference in appearance!

When running up Hayes Street hill, take some time to enjoy a section of sky which is the most incredible sight a human can behold (other than perhaps DNA). It is Markarian's Chain. Find it by locating the big pair of elliptical galaxies M84 and M86, then move at first east then curve north. How many galaxies do you see?

The Great Hercules Cluster M13 sits a mere 25,000 light years away. The light you see from M13 began its journey to your eyes when modern homo sapiens replaced earlier man-like forms. Look next just under one half degree north-northeast for NGC6207. The gently glowing little smudge is a spiral galaxy, millions of light years past the big globular. Have a big scope, dark skies and try for IC4617, between M13 and NGC6207. The last two side-dishes are a pair of globular clusters nearby big Messiers.

M4 is just over a degree west of Antares in Scorpius. Very nearby Antares, under half a degree northwest is NGC6144, a small mag 9 globular.

One of my favorite globulars is M22. It competes well with M13 as *the* showpiece globular in the northern sky. About a degree west northwest is another globular — NGC6642 shining at mag 8.8, and providing a nice contrast with the big splashy M.

There are many, many more "side dishes" of the Messiers. I hope you enjoy the "meal." Since it lasts all night bring some coffee and chocolate cake for an energy desert. I think you'll find the experience both tasty and filling.


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